For the second straight season, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams will have some big decisions to make with his lineup. Marcus Paige, James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston are the only clear-cut starters for the Tar Heels in 2013-14.
Compounding the difficulties of Coach Williams' decision-making process is the absence of Hairston, due to his indefinite suspension.
Will the rising sophomores step up their games and make the rotations a no-brainer? Or will the incoming freshmen outplay their counterparts?
Williams will probably have a good idea of who he will go with through practices, but these guys will have to prove themselves in live-game situations to seal their spots in the lineup.
In the following slides, we'll cover the three toughest lineup decisions on Coach Williams' plate.
As previously mentioned, we have no idea how long P.J. Hairston will be suspended. UNC AD Bubba Cunningham shed the most light on the subject thus far during a faculty retreat in August, telling a staffer Hairston would play this season, "but not all the games," according to CollegeBasketballTalk.
That really narrows it down...
So for an unknown amount of time, someone will have to fill in for Hairston at the small forward spot. But who could possibly be the impact player Williams needs at the 3?
It's tough to fathom anyone on this squad providing the offensive, defensive, physical and emotional impact of the junior wing. There are quite a few Tar Heels on the roster who could help fill the void, though.
The first consideration may have to go to Brice Johnson, even though he is actually a power forward. As a freshman, he was third on the team in field-goal percentage behind centers Joel James and Desmond Hubert. He also had more attempts than those two players combined.
What's more impressive is that he averaged one point every 1.96 minutes. That was better than anyone else on the team except—wait for it—P.J. Hairston.
Due to the depth at the 4 and 5 positions, Johnson gained some valuable experience at the 3 this summer during pickup games. If he improves even more this season, Johnson could definitely help fill that void on the scoreboard.
However, he was a liability at times on defense, and it will probably be even harder on the sophomore to guard natural small forwards who will run him all over the court.
That's where another rising sophomore, J.P. Tokoto, comes in. There are many questions about this young man's offensive game, but there isn't much to question defensively. When he wasn't making rookie mistakes, which were rare, he looked like the best defender on the court.
Nobody has his lateral quickness or hops, though incoming freshman Isaiah Hicks may be close. Another plus is that the 3 is Tokoto's natural position, unlike for Hicks or Johnson.
Tokoto has been working hard over the summer to solidify his shooting, but we won't know how much he has improved until he's put in a game situation.
Hicks would be another possibility with his high activity, defensive prowess and advanced dribbles. However, he'll really have to impress Coach Williams to leapfrog a couple sophomores.
As far as I can tell, there is at least one more option Ol' Roy can go with. It's been talked about from the time he recruited Nate Britt that the freshman could team up with Marcus Paige in a dual-point set. That would allow fifth-year senior Leslie McDonald to slide to the 3-spot.
That could be a pretty potent lineup, as long as Paige and McDonald are sinking their treys.
As many options as Williams will have, you can expect this to be an ongoing trial through the first few games.
Speaking of ongoing trials, let's hope the merry-go-round of centers doesn't continue into the 2013-14 season. Desmond Hubert started more games than anyone else at the 5, but he only averaged 9.4 minutes per game.
That should give a pretty good indication of how often these guys were rotated. Joel James, Brice Johnson and Desmond Hubert all split minutes at center until Coach Williams shifted to the small lineup that featured James Michael McAdoo in the low post.
It was pretty frustrating to watch these guys get pulled every couple minutes. Nobody was able to get into a comfort zone, and I still believe that was one of the bigger issues with the position last season.
The college game is tough enough for freshmen and first-time starters. Not being in the game long enough to find their rhythm only makes it worse.
Unless something goes drastically wrong, Johnson probably won't be included in the rotation this season. The Tar Heels are equipped with three true centers now with the addition of freshman Kennedy Meeks.
Hubert doesn't offer much pop offensively, but he is easily the most athletic and the best shot-blocker of the three. He does struggle a bit on the boards, though. He was tied at the bottom with Jackson Simmons and J.P. Tokoto with 1.7 rebounds per game.
Neither of those guys play center, and both averaged fewer minutes than Hubert.
Especially in Hairston's absence, Hubert could be a major liability offensively and on the boards.
Unless James looks as shaken as he did during his freshman campaign, he is probably the best fit for the starting job. At 6'10", 280 pounds, James has the size to knock around opposing centers with ease. He's also a much more adept scorer and rebounder than Hubert.
But we can't forget about Meeks, who could at least steal the backup role from Hubert. Meeks is an extremely smart player and may be one of the best at his position in the passing game.
The only issue with Meeks is his lack of explosion. He had an easy time scoring and rebounding over the smaller guys in prep school, but it's a whole different ball game at this level.
That could change with his offseason conditioning. According to CollegeBasketballTalk, Meeks' mother told the Associated Press that her son had already lost 20 pounds—and that was in July. Judging by a recent team photo shoot, his mother wasn't lying.
Does that mean he's ready for the big stage? That remains to be seen. But trimming up his physique is a huge step in the right direction for Kennedy Meeks.
Choosing a center rotation may have just gotten harder for Coach Williams.
Finally, there is the issue of the all-important sixth man. While Hairston is absent from the squad, there won't be much of a point to labeling a sixth man. The lineup will probably be juggled too much to give that title to anyone.
When Hairston returns, however, this could become a pressing issue. Hopefully, it will be a clear-cut decision by then.
Typically, coaches like to have the first player off the bench to be a scoring threat. Once again, that strategy would likely favor Brice Johnson.
That's not always the case, though. Sometimes it's the most active player who is used to simply energize the team. J.P. Tokoto and Isaiah Hicks would both fall into that category. Desmond Hubert might even get consideration.
The team also wouldn't lose a step on defense or the transition game with those guys.
But this is simply assessing players by what they did last season—or in high school, as is the case with Hicks. It could be a completely different story come November.
Maybe Johnson steps up his defense and will bring more consistent energy to his game. Maybe Tokoto starts lighting up the nets. Or maybe Hicks is more dominant already than we could ever imagine.
The 2013-14 Tar Heels have more questions than answers at this point, and nobody will truly know the potential of this squad until it is seen in action. If these guys develop and Roy Williams puts them all in the right place, this could be a pretty scary squad to compete with.
Hopefully, in less than a month, "Late Night with Roy" will provide some clues for Carolina's antsy fan base.